Monday, August 13, 2007

Is Religion Necessary? (The Answer)

Okay, you'll all be keen to hear, this morning, how Than Geoff responded to the big question I had been mulling since I woke yesterday: Is religion necessary? I was nervous about asking it for two reasons. First, I tend one of the more vociferous members of the group and invariably have a lot of questions on my mind, and often find myself holding back for fear of hogging time when others might be wanting to step in. And secondly, as I thought about my question during the day, I began to realize that I had asked the same one many times throughout the years, though perhaps in different forms. As I noted yesterday, it springs in part from a long-held emotional aversion to religion that I find hard, if not impossible to shake; and in part from an intellectual skepticism that doubts the existence of a God or a life after death that I have always thought to be the basis of all religions, including--as to the latter--Buddhism.

So what did Thanissaro Bhikkhu have to say? It depends, he said, on your definition of religion, and the definition that he offered will come as a no-surprise surprise to many, as it was to me: religion, as he sees it, is quite simply the pursuit of true happiness. Not happiness. True happiness. Because happiness in the forms in which most of us seek it--material comfort, sexual satisfaction, family, and so on--is the kind that can be taken from us at any moment by the whims of fate. Wealth can evaporate, those close to us can die, we ourselves can be stricken with disease of injury... But no, nothing can deprive us of true happiness, as Than Geoff defines it for us, because it's an inner happiness--one that does not depend others, nor take anything from them. It's the kind of happiness, indeed, that gives us the freedom to be present for others without reservation, since we have nothing to lose and everything to gain from theirs.

I followed up with questions arising from my own understanding of religion--that it requires belief in "transcendence" of some kind, in something beyond the brief span of life between birth and death, a metaphysical dimension that cannot be validated by science or human reason, or even by human experience, but only by faith. Than Geoff was gently insistent in shifting these notions to one side and returning to the simple, pragmatic, experiential view. Asked by another questioner what were the basic tenets of Buddhism as a religion, he was equally uncomplicated in his response: they all boil down to the single belief, he said, that our actions have consequences, and that their quality depends on the quality of our intention in making them.

I asked about skepticism: does it promote unhappiness? Again, a carefully balanced response, to the effect that yes, of course, on the one hand, used unskillfully, it can have that result; but used skillfully, it's an essential ingredient of Buddhist faith, since the Buddha himself taught us to question everything. I asked whether he had read any of the recent books on atheism, and he responded with an amusing story about a nightmare encounter with Sam Harris, in a telephone conference that was to have been published, when Harris immediately went on the attack: religion, he said, was the belief in anything that could not be proved by human reason. End of conversation. Than Geoff decided early on in the interview, he said, that it was absurd to be dragged into that argument.

The subject of prayer came up, along with the question about whether it was based in fear; and remembering that old adage that "there are no atheists in foxholes," I asked Than Geoff what he thought about the human need to turn to some external power or authority in life or death situations, where fear predominates--but another member of our group interjected, without hesitation and with real passion in his voice: "I WAS an antheist in a foxhole." No arguing with a man with that experience behind him. As for atheism, well, we moved on to other topics. A good discussion, though, and I was glad to have raised the issue. I'd be interested to hear responses from readers: Is religion necessary?


carly said...

It seems to me that he crafts his words according to what your group might want to hear and in a way which avoids controversy and sounds wise. I have heard other basic tenets from Buddhists which usually include, "cause and effect", but the noble truths of Dharma are other ideas. Impermanence and nothingness always come up. Illusion and delusion are others. Joy is usually there too, almost always as antidote for bad feelings. But a pronounced disdain of the physical being and subordinating it to the spiritual existence is a historical tenet that the American yuppie version seems to gloss over. I don't see any American buddhists actually attempting to reach nirvana, whether described as "an ebbing away of all influences" or "attainment". I don't see how they could, if not cloistered in a very quiet monastery. So far, my take on Buddhism here, is that it retains aspects of existentialism, seeks to lubricate existence, and is appealing to the pacifist who seeks relief in a conservative way from the overwhelming distress of culture. And I was told that doubt is an influence which leads to delusion, apart from questioning things as to their reality. Also, his definition does not mention Buddhist rejection of duality in faith, and if happiness is the distilled idea, well, just make sure you give up dualism. Personal happiness could be the cornerstone of any faith. That's just all things to all people. 'Good God', sadism makes some people happy. But if you dig into the metaphysical basis of Buddhism, you might not agree with all it's tenets, as admirable as the motivational teachings are. So what's going on here? Is it a buffet religion?

I get edgy when people tout the motivational/inspirational teachings of Buddhism as if they are more than just common sense, with something extra somehow because spoken or found in a book by a prophet or wise one. That is so bourgeois. And I find nothing new in the common sense teaching that the quality of action determines the quality of consequence. That was better worded by "Do unto others...." What are the specifics of quality? What is it based upon? How is quality determined? Are there any qualities which guarantee specific quality consequences? Is there anything to note which the average man does not think of? Again, "quality" can be all things to all people and most religions preach doing what is "right", which is more far-reaching than only considering consequences.

Religion is rather necessary for the lemmings just because you can't stop them from indulging in it. They want their imaginary souls to fly somewhere. But, since nearly every human thinks about such things in some way, philosophy is absolutely necessary. And while practical philosophy is just fine for many folk, some of us see a real need for metaphysical understanding as well. Some system of ideas which keeps society relatively harmonious is necessary (and sorely lacking at the moment). But, ask anybody for a definition and you are likely to get a view revealing their peccadilloes and showing some angle of a problem, coupled with an unreasonable idea of mental, if not physical freedom. Traditionally, religion is clinging to hope in life and bolstering you against fear upon death, which still works for foxhole atheists, who never really reconcile reason with the unknowable. Nihilism and Atheism are religions too, coincidentally. Ones that offer no hope and no escape from the fear.

It has long been apparent that we will never see the mystery behind all things - not guaranteed even if indeed we pass into another dimension, which should, by reason, be discernible before birth, but is totally useless to have faith in. Some people will never be able to accept that the invisible is eternally unknowable and will want to name it, and carve an effigy of it. They will be the followers, the flocks, the lemmings. They can be duped, like they are by advertising or the pomp and circumstance of religious theatre.

Very few people can give you the universal truth of what is knowable, let alone a comprehensive moral system based upon it. Since man's awe and wonder of everything are at the root of religion, how we choose to shape it is the key. The most positive current and forward idea seems to be, as shaped by intuition and science both, that we are immersed in a cosmos which is a giant oneness. For instance, one prominent idea is the law of circularity. It's not just "what goes around comes around". This puts a more specific action to cause and effect. It is cyclical, likely to repeat, or somewhat predictable. No forces are 'out of control'. Man is not against destructive nature. Nothing is ever destroyed. Everything is permanent but takes on a different form. Everything is the oneness and it's acting in a circular way, or influenced by affinities, or fighting like fire under water, or penetrating like the wind in the trees, etc.
An eternal mystery underlies the oneness. Since it is unknowable, we can't even call it a force. But we can see its manifestations and the results of universal forces of change, not impermanence, which has a different thrust. This is a deeper view of cause and effect. It is synchronous. It is about your place in the oneness and the resulting influence you have on others and they on you. It's more than a practical guide to consequences of your actions.
Once such metaphysical aspects such as circularity are understood, one can then debase one's hopes and fears by noting and applying these understandings of change, including them in thought, rather than excluding them from thought. (and by the way, since, the real world will be viewable after your molecules are redistributed, don't tell me reality is an illusion. If I am in the forest and near the tree, its fall makes a big sound). Reality is the discernible parts of the oneness at any moment. Now, one can emulate or model his actions upon the natural laws to effectively anticipate vicissitude. Many people do this quite instinctively. Others need to make it a philosophy. No room here for examples, but it is different from seeking one's happiness. When one applies universal lessons of change, one becomes a master of his hopes and fears. He makes fewer mistakes. He gains power to shape his existence instead of denying it or subjugating it. He puts himself in harmony with the beneficial forces and forgoes artificial forces. He learns to be happy with what is attainable or not - because he has noticed how things work and any kind of attainment is unnecessary. And he is empowered to shape some of it should he choose to do so. He does not seek comfort, nor happiness, nor relief, but is made so by what he can now do or not do and arrives there by being in harmony with what is natural in the cosmos. And this gives depth and meaning to what is right, his synchronous existence.

His spirituality, spiritual existence, or strength of spirit is - the depth gauge of how connected he is to the oneness. From a very connected point of view, fear of death is lessened or subsides. From this approach, one draws his alloted time wringing as much out of each moment as he will, that is, he moves forward in reality in a natural way, without anxiety. And he has nothing to regret.

If that's religion, it's necessary to me.

carly said...

For a complete guide to hidden forces in the metaphysical/moral sphere :

robin andrea said...

I don't believe in god. I have no religion, other than what I am feeling on any given day. If there are so many of us who consider themselves atheists, can religion be necessary? I think the need for religion exited my cells a hundred generations ago, and atheism is enlightenment.

carly said...

atheism is enlightenment

a perfect example of my post, i.e. in nothingness there is light

PeterAtLarge said...

Carly, there's plenty to argue with in your response to Than Geoff's definition of religion--his thought is a good deal more subtle and well-informed than you give him credit for. This is likely the fault of my shorthand reporting of what he had to say. The man is not, as you suggest, a kind of be-good-to-everyone aging hippie with a sentimental mindset. He's rather a scholar and a thinker who has devoted many years of his life to the study and practice of Buddhism, and the author of numerous studies and translations. Beware of dismissing such a man lightly. To get a better sense of who he is and what his thinking is, I'd suggest trying the link to his site in the right-hand sidebar, below.

carly said...

Yea. You're right. I know nothing of Geoff. But I took those definitions as a starting point of criticism of platitudinous type stuff, that preachers often use. I thought your site could use a little edge. Mostly, you guys just agree with each other a lot. I've noticed that whenever you ask a buddhist something, you get a buddhist answer and it's something you already know.

It would have been better for me if you had learned, then reported something enlightening about the tenets of Buddhism, or something which clears up what are issues for me about how people are using the religion. I am obviously coming from the angle that Americans appropriate and misuse everything, from art to history, and in the process, adulterate it, or weaken its passion and potency, until it's unrecognizable and unusable. It's like your, where are the OUtraged Demonstrators? question. Since everything is passionless and watered down, how can a force be raised to combat Washington? It's worse than apathy. The ultimate answer is: democracy is broken. Even Bill Maher slipped in that idea the other night on L.King, when he said, ".......the reason democracy doesn't work any more....". Answer that question and you'll know why there are no demonstrators.

My idea is that it's not apathy at all. It's part of the credo of most Americans, which in it's present form is, if you can't make money on it, it isn't worth speaking up. With a few exceptions of course. And, now, it's more expensive to drop work and go to Washington and not see any results. As ends are harder to meet, the more they will become slaves.

Also, existentialism is so pervasive here, that it stymies group adhesion. I see it in the Buddhist adaptation. A trend based on atheism and nothingness ( and granted, you're well covered on principles of harm and decency) sill, is going to have problems pulling together in a struggle. IT'S INWARD. But spiritual forces of another kind are needed for great undertakings. I have offered a better philosophy to all, but nobody's interested. I get no feedback on a philosophy which has the historical track record needed, and is coming to new use in China, which is the new powerhouse. The buddhist group is probably stuck and has little or no political action to offer. Which is its historical legacy.

Also, I think, people realize overt protests don't have much effect in the States. In Europe, they can really stop traffic. And there, leaders seem to pay attention to the numbers involved. Here, it's a challenge to their power. I think Cardozo's idea is best, apply leverage at other problems. But long-term solutions don't make the impactful statement and must be sustainable by money.

It's interesting that Bill Maher and Michael Moore are galvanizing people, and the Dixie Chicks and Cheryl Crow are doing some Lennon-like stuff. And getting rich and famous at the same time. There's a good video about the Chicks thing.

Docu-film makers are doing their part. I just saw an amazing one about Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. I think all those involved in buddhism should see "Cry of the Snow Lion" for some important lessons about Buddhism's limitations. But when I recommend these things, people don't listen. They just go on touting how great buddhism is. I get the same thing on other blogs too. Which is why I don't know why I'm here, writing.

And then of course, there is the principle of non-action. But I won't even get into that, since I know people are not listening. After all, what do I know? I'm just another contentious guy, pooping on everything. Everything that isn't working.

film tip. You may not like everything about Apocalypto, but does it not have some incredible scenes about ideas you deal with here? Notably the sacrifice scene where the leaders are pulling a fast one on the public. Don't see before bedtime.

roger said...

in reply to your question, speaking for

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Ajaan Geoff's response to your question and have a few insights, though I feel a little uneasy commenting on a second-hand account of his answer. I am a fan Ajaan Geoff, because he presents dharma in a practical, but dynamic way. He also does a great job of humanizing the Buddha. Many dharma teachers I have heard, spend a lot of time humanizing the message but deifying the Buddha.

I have a similar issue with religion (skip the obligatory childhood story about religion), so I had hoped to hear a good answer to your question. I believe Ajaan Geoff's answer was skillful for the occasion. Part of the controversy around "religion" comes from the fact that many people have individual views about what "religion" means. He appeared to offer an answer based on his own comprehension of "religion" (which is the only perspective any of us are qualified to speak from). His definition "the pursuit of of true happiness", sounds like a healthy view to me. Ajaan Geoff (as I'm sure you already know) is a bare bones, Pali scholar, strip it down to the basics, forest monk. So his idea of "religion" and the root of his response, appears to be based on devotion to a system which produces results. "Yes, religion (if religion is the pursuit of true happiness) is necessary, if one desires to discover true happiness (which one does, because one is obsessed with temporary happiness every moment of their life)", is a good answer for me.

Disclaimer: Please understand my grasp of Buddhism is no where close expert. I'm only sharing the concepts picked up in my limited studies.

There are stories about people asking the Buddha a question and his answer to them was to gently set the question aside. I'm not sure Ajaan Geoff's response was intentional, but I chuckled when I heard his response to your definition of religion. First, who is he to comment on the way you perceive religion? And second, concepts like transcendence, existence beyond birth and death, metaphysical dimensions, and concepts beyond human experience are all things the Buddha didn't teach, or gave little value to. Buddhism often points at experiencing the present honestly, without attachment or aversion. Meditation focuses on deepening our awareness of experience. There are of course, forms of Buddhism combining Buddhist teachings with indigenous religion. Buddhism often involves all sorts of metaphysical and transcendental concepts in those cases. Western Buddhism is even becoming Christianized in some areas. Bodhicitta and The Pure Land become parallel concepts for Christ Consciousness and The Kingdom of God. Canonical Buddhism (as I barely understand it) is essentially contrary to the definition of religion you described. Unfortunately my definition of religion is "the pursuit of ritual and repetition as a way to feel connected to something greater than self". I am pleased to see a definition of the word "religion" which sounds healthy (even if the word alone inspires a psychological cringe).

Thank you for sharing your experience Peter, it's a bit late here so I apologize for any errors or babbling.

With Metta

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Anon. Even though delayed by, what, four years? they are still most welcome!